Questioning the Illiberal Turn: Race in the Gentrification of Budapest’s Eighth District

Authors: Jonathan McCombs*, University of Georgia
Topics: Ethnicity and Race, Urban Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: Post-socialism, Illiberalism, Gentrification, Race, Urban Geography, Roma, Hungary,
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 2:00 PM / 3:40 PM
Room: Studio 3, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

At the 2014 annual meeting of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party in Tusnádfürdő, a small Hungarian majority village in western Romania, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave a speech where he outlined his vision of Hungary’s future as an “illiberal democracy.” The term has become a useful signifier for the changes that Orbán and the Fidesz party brought to the Hungarian state since ascending to power in 2010. Their political rhetoric has been characterized as highly nationalist, positioning itself specifically against refugees, Muslims, and Roma. This discourse should be seen as the latest iteration of what is otherwise deeply entrenched racism within Europe and Hungary in particular, rather than aberrant to it. Within Budapest’s Eighth District, an inner-city neighborhood with a large population of Roma, these shifts in policy and rhetoric since the fall of state-socialism are the most apparent. While the district’s mayor Maté Kocsis, an important figure in the Fidesz party, has drawn international attention for his draconian anti-homeless policies and closure of activist centers in the district, when it comes to urban policy, there has been an ongoing project to displace Roma since the socialist-capitalist transition. I argue that the usage of terminology like ‘illiberal’ downplays this history and instead plays into the rhetoric of power-elites who position themselves as outsiders to the status quo. To demonstrate this, I sketch the history of Eighth District development projects since 1989 to show that ‘race’ has been a crucial to these developments under both the auspices of neoliberalism and illiberalism.

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